IIt’s the morning after Veronica Ryan won the Turner Prize, a moment celebrated with her name triumphantly projected onto Liverpool’s sprawling Radio City tower, and it still hasn’t sunk in. “It feels like there is this separate person that I can be, who won the Turner Prize,” she says. “Right now there is a disconnect.”
At 66, Ryan becomes the oldest artist to win the award. In some ways, she also had the hardest road to get here. In her winner’s speech on Wednesday night in the grandeur of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, she thanked and named three lost siblings, Patricia, Josephine and David. When I ask about them, she tells me bluntly: “They committed suicide.” There were years of trauma and grief for the grieving family to deal with. And other losses too. Ryan’s career got off to a promising start, with many events and shows when she graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art. But that ground has come to a standstill. It was almost as if she was swept along by the incoming tide of the Young British Artists, who were a few years her junior. “There was a whole period,” she says, “when people wouldn’t show my work and wouldn’t even respond when I sent them images.”
That has now well and truly shifted. She won the Turner Prize for a major exhibition at Spike Island, Bristol, where she lives, dividing her time between there and New York, as well as for a public sculpture commission in Hackney, London, commemorating the Windrush generation. But there were years in the desert, when she worked without recognition. In her acceptance speech, she spoke of her time “collecting rubbish”. She explains that these were about the times she would make work out of what she could scavenge or pick up for nothing – sculptures, for example, made from slanted stacks of fruit and vegetable packaging, the kind of shaped trays you see with avocados at the market.
She talks movingly about the Momart fire of 2004 – when an art storage warehouse in London burned down with hundreds of works. Famously, the fire destroyed Tracey Emin’s tent, All the People I’ve Ever Slept With. It was the work that featured on the Guardian’s front page the morning after. Ryan also lost a large amount of work, but none of the reports mentioned her. “It coincided with the time I was made invisible,” she says. There was another moment of extinction: in the 1990s, a volcanic eruption in Montserrat completely destroyed Plymouth, the town where she was born. It was a difficult time.
Nevertheless, she continued to make. Art is not simply a career choice for Ryan: she is an artist “to the bottom of her boots” as Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, put it to me at the Turner Prize ceremony. For her, art is a way of expression, a way of investigation, a way of making sense of the world, and also, in a basic way, that occupies the hands. She’s on the move a lot, working on things she can keep hidden in her backpack – a bit of crochet, for example. She is also an avid collector and violinist. She takes some cellophane from her handbag – something that might have wrapped a sandwich yesterday. She knotted it, just to deal with it, but she’s happy with the way it looks and feels. Maybe she will use it in her work in some way. Such modest activities as knotting or sewing are vehicles for thinking, but also a way to get through the day. “I’m kind of obsessed in a lot of ways,” Ryan says.
Her room in Tate Liverpool’s Turner Prize exhibition is quiet, contemplative, full of small and delicate things. Or perhaps they are deceptively delicate, as the objects she makes, despite their modest scale, seem to radiate power and a sticky magic. An old plastic bottle, made creamy over time, is kept in a net holder that may have been made by Ryan, or may have been found. Magnolia pods were cast in bronze, then joined together and hung with fishing line, and hung from a screw.
Plaster casts of something that could be shells or seeds are tied tightly with string, set on a crocheted doily. Dried orange peels—satisfying spirals removed intact—were sewn back together, with dark stitches that had the appearance of a field-surgery suture. There is much here that reminds me of the repetitive, traditionally feminine tasks of folding, stitching, knitting, mending, mending. Her objects are held, contained and nested in a way that I find very satisfying. But there’s also something uncomfortable about them, as if they might be having darker conversations among themselves that are half hidden from me.
There are many seeds and fruits in the work, things that speak of trade, movement and colonial history, as well as her own history as someone who was brought to live in Britain as a young child from Montserrat. But when we talk about work, I can see how Ryan resists the idea that it’s “about” anything. It always passes this but also this and this. Take the cocoa pods you can see arranged on a small cast plaster container in the Tate Liverpool show.
“I was interested in people going straight to the idea of migration,” she says of conversations about such material. “But actually I think of everything – that cocoa was initially used by Aztecs as a kind of ceremonial drink. And then at some point it was used to make a soup with salt. And then sugar was added and so on. I’m always a little anxious when the work is just about trade networks, or race.” Of decisive importance is that the cacao pods attract her as objects in themselves – “how they grow straight from the trunk of the tree, how their shape is so peculiar and beautiful”. Whatever the resonances of his materials, her art is always imbued with a formal sculptural language, one that is hyper-aware of how an object can sit in a space in relation to others, how it can be seen from above or below ; how it can lean, or stand, or stack, or collapse.
And then there is the incredible power of them. Ryan tells me that when she was a young graduate student at Soas University of London, she took a trip to Nigeria. “In a village outside Lagos I saw objects, seeds, gourds and various kinds of things wrapped together and hung on trees, as a kind of protection.” They were small votive objects, things that carried a certain power. Some of her work harkens back to that trip, those bundles of, say, seed pods tightly wrapped with yarn. Sometimes they have secrets: Ryan tells me that under the colorful binding she might have hidden something fragrant, like sage leaves. Her grandmother used to send parcels of dried herbs from Montserrat, and her mother also grew herbs for tea in her garden, and dried orange peels for infusions. “I grew up with this extensive knowledge of plants and herbs that comes out in the work,” she says.
Ryan talks a lot about her mother, who passed on many skills – especially crocheting and needlework (the crocheted doilies in Ryan’s Turner Prize show were made by her). When Ryan was little, her mother and aunt used cotton flour sacks as the family’s pillowcases, washing them until they were soft and embroidering them. “My mom always recycled things, not that she called it that,” she says. “I grew up reusing things when I had no resources.” It took time, she adds, “to give myself permission to use sewing and patchwork and embroidery in my work”. It involved unlearning the kind of language we learned at art school.
Seeing Mike Kelley’s early sculptures in New York, which include crocheted rugs and small toys, was a revelation. “It was so exciting to move away from some kind of gender preoccupation,” she says. “But it takes a long time to unlearn early prescriptive ideas.” Ryan doesn’t like the idea of that kind of work being characterized as “textile art” because, she says, “it’s all part of the language you can use”.
Not everything she makes is small and sturdy. Her Windrush sculpture consists of three large objects made in bronze and marble – a custard apple, a breadfruit tree and a sour soup. They are irresistible – the scaly, lumpy fruits made strange by their scale. People lean and sit on them, climb on them, use them as a landmark. Maybe now, after her Turner Prize win, it will be time for Ryan to grow up. Why not? There is a certain glint in her eye that suggests she might.